‘I forgot that the military man is not subtle; he thinks with his sword.’
A village blacksmith will almost superhuman strength is contacted by a childhood friend who is now handmaiden to the Emporer’s daughter. She fears that there is treachery afoot in the Palace and that unscrupulous forces are about to attempt to take the throne by force…
By 1964, the Italian muscleman craze started by Steve Reeves’ turn as ‘Hercules’ (1958) had just about reached the end of its course. This was the 14th such film featuring the legendary Greek hero, and over 40 other movies had featured identikit strongmen, such as Samson, Goliath, Ursus and Maciste. A lot of those had also been rebranded with the ‘Hercules’ tag when released in the United States. So it’s hardly a great surprise that director Piero Pierotti’s effort brings nothing to the table but a succession of tired, old Peplum cliches.
Hercules (Sergio Ciani, billed as Alan Steel) is working as a village blacksmith a few days ride from the city of Ravenna, the seat of the Holy Roman Empire. Apart from the occasional attack by bandits, he’s living the quiet life, despite being constantly pestered by the teenage Erika (Simonetta Simeoni) whose romantic interest he doesn’t understand because his brain isn’t one of his more fully developed muscles. News comes that childhood friend Arminia (Dina De Santis) needs him in the big city. She’s worried that the ambitious Filippo Arfus (Daniele Vargas) is planning to assassinate Emperor Gordianus (Carlo Tamberlani) and marry his effeminate son to her mistress, the Princess Ulpia (Wandisa Guida). He’s also got a window of opportunity as the loyal General Triano (Mimmo Palmala) is off on tour fighting the Goths.
Arriving in the city, Ciani joins forces with comedy relief innkeeper Lucilus (Tullio Altamura), and they infiltrate the Palace through the predictably convenient (and surprisingly spacious) secret passage. De Santis gives them the lowdown, but it’s too late; Vargas has already put his plan into motion, and Tamberlani has departed for the Elysian Fields. Our hero rescues Guida in the nick of time and hides her in his village. Unfortunately, the experience has given her temporary amnesia, and Vargas has already seized the throne. But the return of Palmala after a successful campaign provides the opportunity to take it back.
Such a generic plot, predictable story development and faceless characters leave little to discuss. However, there are a few, scattered points on interest. For a start, this is not Ancient Greece; it’s Ancient Rome. Hercules may be associated principally with Greek mythology but, to be pedantic, that’s actually Heracles, even though they are basically the same character. Both are credited with completing the legendary ‘labours’, after all, so it’s no great surprise that he switches origin from movie to movie from Greek to Roman and then back again. Also, Ciani isn’t really playing that character anyway. In some throwaway dialogue at the start of proceedings, we learn that he is supposedly the reincarnation of Hercules because every few generations a man born in this particular village will inherit the demi-god’s strength. This cheerfully brief and vague exposition does serve to inform audience expectations; however: no Gods, no monsters, no mythology.
What remains is a poor effort in many departments. Ciani looks the part, but lacks personality, Guida makes some ‘interesting’ acting choices, and Vargas’ men are probably the most poorly trained combat troops ever to make up a Praetorian Guard. In fairness, the English dub track does the cast few favours, but it provides one of the few genuinely entertaining moments in the film. When Vargas seizes power on the steps of the Palace, the troops proclaim him their leader with the possibly the most unenthusiastic ‘Long Live the Emporer’ ever heard on film. If he has to rely on their loyalty, then his days are numbered. Also, rather brilliantly, our main villain’s character was originally named Filippo Afro! They should have kept that in for the American release!
But we do have to talk about the last act. The climactic conflict sees the opposing forces meet on the battlefield. It’s a ‘do or die’ struggle for the throne of the Empire. Only most of these soldiers look suspiciously they are busy appearing in another film. Yes, we do see Vargas and Palmala go up against each other, but they are only sharing the frame with about a dozen other combatants. Palmala does discuss things with his generals in a tent, which makes a nice change as few military leaders in these films ever bother with something as unimportant as battle tactics. However, he never shares the frame with a significant number of his men, and neither does Vargas. Also Ciani takes almost no part in the final conflict, at all. Yes, before the battle begins, he turns over a catapult manned by a small cohort on a bridge which is strategically crucial, but, after that, he only appears in the final 20 seconds of the film. And that’s just a shot of him riding off into the sunset with a cheery wave!
Ciani began his career as Steve Reeves’ body double in films like ‘Hercules Unchained’ (1959) and ‘The Giant of Marathon’ (1959) before his elevation to a more significant role opposite Brad Harris in ‘Samson’ (1961). He snagged the role of Maciste for ‘Zorro contro Maciste’ (1963) which was retitled as ‘Samson and the Slave Queen’ in the U.S. An appearance as Goliath followed the same year in ‘Golia e il cavaliere mascherato’ (1963), retitled ‘Hercules and the Masked Rider’ stateside and then as Samson in ‘Sansone contro il corsaro nero’ (1964), which was retitled as ‘Hercules and the Black Pirates’ for export purposes. So, a legitimate appearance as Hercules was probably inevitable! Further appearances as Maciste and Ursus followed, as well as another as Hercules in ‘Ercole, Sansone, Maciste e Ursus gli invincibili‘ (1964). Once the muscleman genre died out, he made fewer appearances on the big screen, including the rather poor Giallo ‘A…for Assassin’ (1966), but worked reasonably steadily before retiring at the end of the 1970s.
Somewhat threadbare Peplum from the beginning of the end of the Italian Hercules cycle.
Samson/Sansone (1961) – Mark David Welsh